Liberalism and Nationalism in Germany 1815-71: The road to 1848 – How ‘Germanic Europe’ emerged into the post-Napoleonic world

Prior to the years of Napoleonic conflict and according domination of the Germanic states of Central Europe, the concept of ‘Germany’ as political ideal was vague and distant for all but a very few dreamers and eccentrics. As late as 1789 those who identified as German in a cultural or ethnic sense found themselves divided across a loosely aligned confederation dating from medieval times of 314 different states, each having its own traditions, customs, laws and prerogatives on aspects of politics and society. In essence it was a feudal system, once which the explosion of ideas of equality, reform and emancipation across the Rhine in France shook to its very core, then violently realigned in its own image during the years of Napoleonic conquest (1805-13).

Napoleon inspects his victorious troops, Battle of Jena 1806

Whilst the perception of todays multi-national European experiment of co-operation and ‘Fraternity’ is that of a European Union under nominal German hegemony, in the early 19th century France and Napoleon were without question the driving force in ripping Europe from its archaic shackles and forging a new and progressive – albeit firmly under French direction and hegemony – modern Europe. Ultimately a combination of British naval prowess and a Russian winter campaign meant Napoleon’s ambitions were to be curtailed before ever reaching their full potential, but the period of French domination had left an indelible mark on the conscience of reformer and conservative thinkers alike, not least in the German states which now numbered 39 through annexation by larger German states such as Prussia. Whilst emulating the social achievements of the French Revolution was an ambition for Liberal Germans, others were less keen to embrace the concepts of such – for the times – radical new social system and sought to roll back such revolutionary concepts and secure peace and stability based on the old ways. Step forward Austria – in particular Clemens von Metternich.

Clemens von Metternich, Austrian Foreign Minister and chief ‘orchestrator’ of the’ Concert of Vienna’ 1815

The ‘Vienna Settlement’ of 1815 proved to be a peace conference which delivered a lasting and conclusive peace, in direct contrast to its successor just over 100 years later. However, in contrast to Versailles which sought to deliver a progressive and ambitious future based on self-determination and a League of Nations working in unity, the ‘Concert of Vienna’ in 1815 sought to achieve a balance of power based on principles and structures of the past. The primary architect in chief of this solution was Austria and in particular Foreign Minister von Metternich. Seeking to prevent future instances of revolution and liberal thought by restoring the old system of absolutist monarchies across Europe and censoring and repressing any ‘radical’ voices, the concept of Nationalism was anathema to Metternich. Ultimately it would be this arrogance and refusal to acknowledge the shifting tides of political and social discourse would prove to be his downfall in due course. But for now the old guard and ‘counter-revolutionary’ ideals reigned supreme, and Austria was happy to remain the nominal ‘leader’ of the German-speaking states without actually doing much in the way of leadership.

Although the nominally most powerful German ruler after the Austrian Emperor, Fredrick William III showed little interest in having Prussia take the lead as the pre-eminent German state

The other big ‘winner’ to emerge from the Congress of Vienna was that of the 2nd most powerful and influential German state, Prussia. Prussia had made a considerable military contribution in the Napoleonic Wars and was the most economically well positioned German state in terms of making any moves to expand, but in keeping with the general fashion of the day it was led by a conservative absolutist monarch in Fredrick William III who showed little appetite for political or social reform (Prussia remaining without a constitution of any kind until 1848). Despite the lack of enthusiasm from their political rulers and elites in pursuing anything substantial in terms of reform, the spillover from the French Revolution and Napoleonic rule had planted the seeds of a nascent Nationalist identity within the minds of many – particularly younger – German middle classes which dovetailed with the growth and development of a Liberal movement within the German states which echoed those voices and dreams of their French neighbours less than a generation previously in calling for political, social and economic reform. Whilst both were inherently middle class movements in Germany – perhaps even more so than in France – the dawning of the Industrial Age would act as a catalyst in connecting the dots between the bourgeoisie and workers in years to come.

Key Takeaways from this section

Make sure you are secure in your knowledge of the following:

  • The political landscape of the German Confederation 1815-1830
  • The role of Metternich in suppressing German political and social identity
  • Who the German Liberals were and what formed the core of their beliefs
  • The growth in German Nationalism during 1820s/30s and the challenges it faced
  • The reasons why a unified and cohesive Germany seemed a distant dream in this era

Please find associated resources and additional media links below!

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